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Informality and Income Insecurity: Is Basic Income a Universal Solution?

Date: 13 May 2016

Universal Basic Income, UniversalityIs a universal or unconditional basic income (UBI) an effective way for states to meet the social protection commitments outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? This UNRISD Seminar will explore the benefits and disadvantages of a universal income in countries in the Global North and the Global South.


On 5 June, Switzerland will hold the world’s first popular vote on universal basic income. The vote, which was put forward by a group of citizens rather than a political party, has been the subject of recent public debate.

Within Switzerland, advocates argue that a UBI would allow people to meet their basic needs and live life in dignity, provide protection from fluctuations in the employment market, especially with rapid technological changes making certain types of work obsolete, remove the stigma often associated with social assistance, and promote gender equality by providing women, who are disproportionately responsible for performing unpaid care work, with an independent income. Opponents argue that such an initiative would have negative impacts on Switzerland’s already existing social protection schemes, is financially unsustainable, would disincentivize people from working and result in increased immigration.

But UBI schemes are not only an option for developed countries like Switzerland and Finland, which is also exploring the idea. A range of schemes have in fact been piloted in developing countries. In 2010-2012 Mongolia funded a universal citizenship grant out of mining revenues, which subsequently was scaled back to a universal child grant in the Child Money Programme (CMP). In 2008-2009, Namibia piloted the Basic Income Grant (BIG) project with positive social and economic impacts reported in the short term, although sustaining such results has been difficult. A basic income pilot scheme in India was the subject of an UNRISD seminar in 2013. Some middle-income countries even stipulate basic income guarantees in their constitutions or laws.

At first sight, the motivation for UBI schemes in low or middle-income countries would appear to be quite different from developed countries: In addition to contributing to social justice, they are often introduced to fill a significant social protection gap and as a way of reducing poverty. However, as Northern labour markets show signs of becoming more informal, the need for new approaches to social protection becomes more pressing in these countries as well.

Could UBI be a way to cover social protection needs in both Northern and Southern countries? The human rights-based approach inherent in a universal scheme and the resulting empowerment, held up as benefits for developing countries, are equally important in developed countries, particularly with the recently adopted Agenda 2030, which reinforces global human rights commitments and applies to all countries, rich or poor.

The imminent Swiss vote gives UNRISD the opportunity to explore these issues with a diverse panel of experts familiar with key experiences from both Northern and Southern countries. The panellists will discuss where and under what circumstances a UBI can be an effective way for states to meet their human rights obligations and achieve some of the major aims set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, namely reducing inequality, eradicating poverty and achieving gender equality. Panellists will also consider the challenges of creating such schemes, such as the availability of resources, issues of long-term sustainability and their adaptability in developing and developed country contexts.


Paul Ladd, Director, UNRISD

Päivi Kairamo, Finnish Ambassador to the UN

Thomas Vollmer, Head of Section for Old-Age, Generations and Society; Federal Social Insurance Office (OFAS); Federal Department of Home Affairs, Switzerland

Guy Standing, Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies and Co-President, Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN)

Patricia Schulz, Member, UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women

Ralph Kundig, President, BIEN (CH)

Didier Georges, Mission of Haiti to the UN


Speakers at this event may use French or English; interpretation will not be provided.

Remote Access to the Seminar

We will be tweeting key messages live from the seminar and welcome your comments and questions, which, time permitting, we may be able to put directly to the speaker. Follow us on @UNRISD and use the hashtags #UNRISDseminar

This event will be video and audio recorded. If you would like to be notified when the video and the podcast are online, please send an email with "Audio/video notification: UBI” in the subject line to sandoval@unrisd.org.

Additional Resources

Guy Standing: "Piloting Basic Income in India: A Transformative Policy?" [Video] UNRISD Seminar

Targeting and Universalism in Poverty Reduction, UNRISD research paper

Documentation: Initiative populaire « Pour un revenu de base inconditionnel » - Votation populaire du 5 juin 2016, Confédération suisse


It’s Payback Time for Women viaThe New York Times

Let's Be Done with Subsidies Already via Business Standard

What Would Society Look Like with Universal Basic Income? via New Statesman

Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income? [Podcast] via Freakonomics Radio

Revenu de base, une impulsion culturelle, [Video] Initiative Revenue de Base (Suisse) documentary

Attribution: Icon by Gregor Črešnar (CC BY 2.0 via The Noun Project)